Film Review: Madeline's Madeline

An unremittingly pretentious film about a psychologically troubled young girl, her wackadoodle acting coach and their immersive, improvised exercises where the lines between reality and fantasy blend.
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There’s undoubtedly an audience for Josephine Decker’s third indie feature, Madeline’s Madeline, but alas, it’s not me. In all fairness, a number of reviewers who saw it at Sundance (including mainstream critics) praised the film to the hilt. They especially liked its visual and narrative expressionistic elements, which were for me (depending on the scene) heavy-handed or obfuscating or both.

Put simply, Madeline’s Madeline is an unremittingly pretentious film about an emotionally unstable teenager, Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard), her wackadoodle acting coach Evangeline (Molly Parker) and their immersive, improvised exercises—incorporating other drama students and at one point the young girl’s mother, Regina (Miranda July)—where the lines between fantasy and reality blend. Ensemble psychodrama rules. Art imitates life, life imitates art…oh, hell, we’re all a bunch of performers performing ourselves. We can also embody animals. Characters in this film do that too, crouching, crawling, lurching, and monster masks are donned from time to time.

Much of it feels like a nightmare (or maybe stream-of-consciousness) charging through the mind of a nauseated insomniac on a psychotropic drug. There are unaccounted-for close-ups and far shots and occasionally the picture goes fuzzy altogether. Is the unfocused and shaky camerawork intended to mirror our protagonists’ unfocused and shaky minds?

At the periphery there’s the concerned mom, who worries that the acting class is harming her daughter. There’s Evangeline, who is stunned by Madeline’s talent and has become obsessed with her, making her—or more precisely her life story and relationships—the centerpiece of a collectively forged class improvisation. And there’s our protagonist Madeline, torn between her mother, teacher and classmates—the latter beginning to resent the whole production that has essentially tossed everyone (short of Madeline) to the sidelines.

Racial factors play an oddball role here too, and none of it makes much sense. Madeline, who is biracial, lives with her white mom. Evangeline is a white woman married to a black man and the couple is childless. Perhaps Madeline is the child Evangeline never had. Growing increasingly attached to Madeline, she invites her to a party at her home, where Madeline attempts to seduce Evangeline’s husband. At some point along the way, the two women’s identities merge. They both fantasize about burning Regina’s face with an iron.

The film might have worked within parameters if it had been told straight. Kernels of truth surface in its recreation of trendy, overwrought acting classes filled with fragile students desperate to please a manipulative authoritarian teacher/director who can flex her muscles with unquestioned impunity. (Black Swan and Whiplash captured these abusive characters in the dance and music worlds, respectively.)

Nobody asks—even thinks to ask—Evangeline what she’s talking about (or what purpose it serves) when she instructs her students to “act out metaphors” as they shape-shift into sea turtles or cats. “Don’t be a cat,” she prods Madeline. “Be in the cat.”

Potentially interesting too is the exaggerated favoritism Evangeline feels for Madeline and how she maneuvers the class to dramatize Madeline’s life, again for no discernible purpose, though she makes vague noises about some new form of theatre she’s creating.

The performances are excellent: July as the well-meaning but weak and none-too-bright mom; Parker playing the demented windbag of a teacher who truly believes what she’s spouting; and especially Howard, who delivers a full-throated interpretation of a sensitive soul trying to claim herself in an untenable life situation. But in the end, the fine acting cannot salvage the uninspired material that fancies itself cutting-edge yet is paradoxicallydated. Madeline’s Madeline might have been innovative in the mid-’60s, but its novelty has long expired.